WASHINGTON – Partisan sparring over the Russia investigation is causing chaos on the traditionally bipartisan House intelligence committee — with the panel now planning to build a wall to separate Republican and Democratic staff who have long sat side by side.
A senior Republican on the committee, Florida Rep. Tom Rooney, said Thursday that he thinks the committee is "poison" right now, characterizing partisan tensions as a total breakdown on committee that could have national security concerns. Rooney is one of the leaders of the panel's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign was involved.
"The level of trust is just gone," Rooney said, adding that "certain things definitely suffer," like how to fund and conduct oversight over intelligence agencies.
Rooney said he was discouraged that only three or four members of the committee attended a recent national security briefing on a "very sensitive issue abroad that that we have been following for years." He said the sparsely-attended meeting came at the same time lawmakers were publicly debating their differences over a GOP memo that criticized methods the FBI used to obtain a surveillance warrant on a onetime Trump campaign associate.
The plan to divide the Republican and Democratic staff comes as members of the two parties have publicly been at odds, first over the panel's ongoing investigation into Russia and more recently over Republican investigations into the FBI and Justice Department. A committee official confirmed the plan to separate staff, characterizing the move as bringing the panel into line with most other committees in the House where majority and minority staff use different offices. The official declined to be identified because the committee's operations aren't public.
Much of the tension has been between the Republican chairman of the panel, California Rep. Devin Nunes, and the committee's top Democrat, California Rep. Adam Schiff, who have been chiding each other since launching the Russia investigation together last year.
Schiff said dividing the two staffs would be a "terrible" mistake.
"While we have more than our share of difficulties, the important oversight work of the committee continues with our staff working together, irrespective of party," Schiff said. "This would be a very destructive decision."
It's unclear what the wall would look like or if it would permanently separate the staff. CBS News first reported that there would be a partition.
He disputed Rooney's account that the committee's other work is suffering, noted the panel has recently passed bipartisan bills to renew intelligence programs. Schiff said he believes the committee has so far been able to "compartmentalize."
A spokesman for Nunes did not respond to a request for comment on Rooney's characterization of the committee.
Rooney expressed frustration with Democrats, but also with the breakdown of bipartisanship in general. He said another likely result is that Republicans and Democrats will issue separate reports on the Russia investigation, and partisans will only believe one report.
"As far as who is to blame for that — everyone is so eager to blame Devin, but I can't tell you that it's Devin's fault, that the atmosphere down there is what it is," Rooney said. "You could easily say the same thing about Adam on our side. But that doesn't help."
The tension has escalated in the last few weeks as Democrats have disputed the GOP memo, which was declassified by President Trump last week and released unredacted by the committee. The committee voted Monday to release a classified Democratic counter-memo, but Republicans have said they think it needs redactions. Trump has five days from the Monday vote to decide whether to allow its release.